Hello Fresh recipe box

Recipe box operators like Hello Fresh are growing fast but from a small base

Why traipse to the supermarket when you could have fresh ingredients delivered straight to your door? This was the simple sell behind recipe box companies when they launched in the UK in 2012.

Unlike online grocers, these companies didn’t even require you to think about a shopping list. Tried-and-tested recipes would be picked out for you along with the exact quantities of ingredients. It was an idea that sounded full of promise. In an era where both convenience and health are more prized than ever, why wouldn’t consumers opt for this speedy solution rather than laboriously trawling the supermarket aisles for the bay leaves and quinoa?

But four years on, these companies have barely made a dent in the grocery industry. While they are growing rapidly, as shown by data from Cardlytics that found spend on Hello Fresh, Gousto and Abel & Cole had increased by 65% in the first half of 2016 compared with the same period last year, this is working from a very small base. Less than 1% of the population is estimated to use a recipe box service and the largest player – Hello Fresh – has just 0.2% market share. It’s hardly a popularity explosion.

So why is this the case? Looking at the glowing online reviews of companies such as Hello Fresh and Gousto, you wonder why anyone is still bothering with the fuss of supermarkets. Customers largely feel the services have delivered on their promises of freshness, convenience and foolproof recipes.

Yet there remain clear barriers to signing up to one of these services (even when some are literally giving their first boxes of food away). One is purely the fact that you have to ‘sign up’. Unlike your commitment-free supermarket, services such as Hello Fresh require you to take out a subscription. True, you can pause any time you like and for however long you want. But if you forget to pause one week, your subscription will continue and you may end up with a box of food that you neither want nor need. It’s enough to scare off any commitment-phobe.

Also, these services aren’t necessarily freeing you from that regular supermarket trip. Chances are, you will still need to pop down to the shop to get staples such as milk, fruit, cereal and cleaning products. Some services are aiming to become more of a one-stop shop – Abel & Cole, for example, sells everything from cleaning products to bakery produce – but it still can’t offer anywhere near the range of the mainstream retailers.Concerns about packaging waste also remain a challenge for recipe box operators to overcome.

Finally, recipe boxes are seen as a premium offering. It may not be completely fair, but people believe they could get the same quality ingredients for a cheaper price at the supermarkets. Recipe box companies have been working hard to dispel that perception, most notably by pointing out the reduction in food waste. Rather than paying full whack for a jar of marjoram you will almost certainly not use again, these companies will only charge you for what you need. Considering Gousto’s prices start at £3.75 per meal, it’s not necessarily a bad deal. But they do go up to £6.87 for the smaller boxes, which is undeniably on the pricey side. And for that money, couldn’t you get someone to cook it for you?

That’s not to say recipe boxes aren’t a great idea. From personal experience, they are a fantastic way to learn how to cook and almost always deliver on taste. Plus, they are an easy way to make sure you have a balanced diet that varies beyond that trusted tomato-and-spaghetti dish. But when it comes to market share, supermarkets certainly don’t have anything to fear yet.

For an in-depth look at the UK’s recipe box market, don’t miss our special feature out later this week on thegrocer.co.uk and in this Saturday’s edition.